ANCIENT ROMAN RELIGION

ANCIENT ROMAN RELIGION

20120224-sacrifice Bas_relief_from_Arch_of_Marcus_Aurelius_showing_sacrifice.jpg
Bas relief from Arch of Marcus Aurelius
showing a sacrifice
The Roman had their traditional ceremonies and they worshiped Roman gods as well as gods from other provinces and city states. After Augustus, emperor worship was also incorporated into the Roman religion.

The Romans were regarded as practical people. There were more consumed with building, organizing and enjoying themselves and did not seem to concern themselves too much with spiritual and religious matters. In general, the Romans took a more light hearted view of spiritual matters and the god they worshiped reflected this.

For Romans religion was more of a duty than it was for the Greeks. Cults, superstition, rituals, festivals and sacrifices appealed to them more than devotion and morality. The priesthood was often more interested in politics than spirituality. The Senate and Emperor were religious figures.

In Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, cynically observed: "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."

Case for Polytheism

The Romans and Greeks practiced polytheism: the worship of many gods. Polytheists have traditionally been looked down upon by practitioners of the great monotheistic religion which worship only a single god---Judaism, Christianity, Islam---as primitive and barbaric pagans. But who knows maybe they had it right.

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Jupiter and his wives
by Wenceslas Hollar
Mary Leftowitz, a classics professor at Wellesley College, argues that a lot of world’s troubles today can be blamed in monotheism. In the Los Angeles Times she wrote, “The polytheistic Greeks didn’t advocate killing those who worshiped a different gods, and they did not pretend that their religion provided all the right answers. Their religion made the ancient Greeks aware of their ignorance and weakness, letting them recognize multiple points of view. ..It suggests that collective decisions often lead to better outcomes. Respect for a diversity of viewpoints informs the cooperative system the Athenians called democracy.”

“Unlike the monotheistic traditions Greco-Roman polytheism was multicultural...The world, as the Greek philosopher Thales wrote, is full of gods, and all deserve respect and honor. Such a generous understanding of nature called the ancient Greeks and Romans to accept and respect other people’s gods and to admire (rather than despise) other nations for their own notions of piety. If the Greeks were in close contact with a particular nation they gave their foreign gods names of their own gods: The Egyptian goddess Isis was Demeter; Horus was Apollo and so on.”

Roman Gods

Many Roman gods were originally local gods or Greek gods that were woven into the general Roman scheme. Sometimes the transition from Greek to Roman god was simply a matter of changing the name. Other times they went through a more complex metamorphosis.

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Some gods were highly regarded in some city-states and ignored in others. And some evolved from spirits. Janus was originally a spirit of the door that represented looking both ways and Venus was originally a sexless garden spirit that was united with Aphrodite to form the great goddess of love. Mars was the first great Roman god.

The Romans also worshiped spirits called Numina that didn’t have any shape or form. Each family had its own god, Lar, who protected the house and food supply. These gods tended to be worshiped at home not in temples. Some groups and professions had their own gods and spirits. Sylvanus, for example, was a spirit that helped plowmen and woodcutters.

Household gods were important. Many houses had a lararium , a household shrine dedicated the worship of Lares and Penates, household spirits

Gods unique to Roman mythology included: Saturn (god of agriculture); Janus (god of beginnings) was the source of the name January (He was a Numina); Fortuna (goddess of fortune); Terminus (the god of boundaries and endings); Maia (goddess of spring); and Quirinus (the defied Romulus, a war God)

See Greek Gods

Foreign Gods and Myths in Ancient Rome

Romans worshiped gods from Babylon, Persia, Europe and Egypt. Those stationed in remote provinces often worshiped local gods. In England, for example, there were temples dictated to Sulis Minerva, a deity that was a composite of the a Celtic goddess and Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom. In Asia minor there were Roman temples built in honor of Diana, the Babylonian goddess of hunting. One of the most opulent temples in Pompeii was dictated to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility.

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Mithras slaying a bull
Local deities found in individual Middle Eastern nations became international during the first three centuries of the Roman empire. Roman citizens worshipped Isis of Egypt, Mithras of Persia, Demeter of Greece, and the great mother Cybele of Phrygia. The cults practiced secret ceremonies and promised their followers afterlife, symbolized by the death and rebirth of their god. [Source: World Almanac]

Many Romans worshiped Mithras, the Persian god of light. Mithras cults performed ritual bull killings in which the participants washed themselves in the animal's blood. Mithras was a favorite among Roman soldiers and almost every army outpost had a shrine dedicated to the Persian God.

Many Roman myths are based on Greek myths. See Religion and Literature Under Ancient Greece

Rome is said to have been founded in 753 B.C. by the twins Romulus and Remus, and the name Rome came from a combination of their names. According to legend they were the sons of Mars and a sleeping beauty. The were suckled by a she wolf and grew up to found Rome. Romulus and the Sabine leader Titus Tatius fought a war that triggered the infamous rape of the Sabine women by the followers of Romulus.

Roman Emperor Worship and Deification

Emperor worship was common in Rome. Starting with Augustus (27 B.C.-14 AD) emperors that considered themselves gods took over the empire. The Roman emperors seemed to believe in their divinity and they demanded that their subjects worship them. Marcellus was honored with a festival. Flaminius was made a priest for three hundred years. Ephesus had a shrine for Serilius Isauricus. Antony and Cleopatra referred to themselves as Dionysus and Osiris and named their children Sun and Moon. Caligula and Nero demanded to be worshiped like gods in their lifetime. And Vespian said on his deathbed "Oh dear, I'm afraid I'm becoming a God."

Describing the deification of Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 211, the Greek historian Herodian wrote: "It is a Roman custom to give divine status to those emperors who die with heirs to succeed them. This ceremony is called deification. Public mourning, with a mixture of festive and religious ritual, is proclaimed throughout the city, and the body of the dead is buried in the normal way with a costly funeral.

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Caesar's deification
"Then they make an exact wax replica of the man, which they put on a huge ivory bed strewn with gold-threaded coverings, raised high up in the entrance to the palace. This image, in the deathly palace, rests there like a sick man...the whole Senate sitting on the left, dressed in black, while on the right are all women who can claim special honors...This continues for seven days, during each of which doctors came and approach the bed, take a look at the supposed invalid and announce a daily deterioration in his condition.”

“When at last the news is given that he is dead, the end of the bier is raised on the shoulders of the noblest members of Equestrian Order and chosen young Senators, carried along the Sacred Way, and placed in the Forum Romanum...a chorus of children from the noblest and most respected families stands facing a body of women selected on merit. Each group sings hymns and songs.”

“After this the bier is raised and carried outside the city walls to a square structure filled with firewood and "covered with golden garments, ivory decorations and rich pictures." On top of the structure are five more structures that are progressively smaller. “The whole thing was often five or six stories tall.”

"When the bier has been taken to the second story and put inside, aromatic herbs and incense of every kind produced on earth, together with flowers, grasses and juices collected for their smell, and brought and poured in heaps...When the pile of aromatic material is very high and the whole space filled...The whole equestrian Order rides round...Chariots also circle in the same formation, the charioteers dressed in purple and carrying images with the masks of famous Roman generals and emperors."

"The heir to the throne takes a brand and sets it to every building . All the spectators crowd in and add to the flame. Everything is very easily and readily consumed...From the highest and smallest story...an eagle is released and carried up into the sky with the flames. The Romans believe the bird bears the soul of the emperor from earth to heaven. Thereafter the dead emperor is worshipped with the rest of the gods."

Roman Tolerance of Other Religions

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Mithraic cameo
Until Constantine adopted Christianity, citizens were allowed to worship whatever gods they wished as long as they respected the Roman religion by making sacrifices to the Roman gods and worshipping the Roman emperor as a god. Jesus and other saints were executed and many Christians were punished or killed, but theses measures were the exception not the rule.

The Romans demanded that their gods be worshipped, but at the same time they received the local gods. The reason the Jews and Christian were persecuted is that they presented a threat and refused to worship the Roman gods. [Source: "History of Art" by H.W. Janson, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.]

Judaism and Christianity were not the only religions in the Roman empire. Mithraism, Manichaeism, Gnosticism and many others were practiced. There were lots of practitioners of strange religions around--- Donatists, Pelagians, Arians.

Vestal Virgins, Roman Rituals and Sacrifices

Vesta was the spirit of the hearth. The Vestal Virgins that tended her shrine were hired between the ages of six and ten and worked until they were in their later thirties.

The six virgins who watched the eternal flame of Rome, which burned for more than a thousand years, were ordained at the age of seven and lived in pampered but secluded luxury. As long as they remained pure, they were among the most respected women in Rome. They could walk unaccompanied and had the power to pardon prisoners. If they lost they virginity, however they were buried alive with a burning candle and bread so they could stay alive long enough to contemplate their sins. Under Augustus they were rewarded with the best seats at gladiator contests, exclusive parties and feasts with sow’s bladder and thrushes.

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Vestal Virgin Invocation
by Leighton Frederic
Romans from the earliest times of their existence practiced a purifying ritual called Lupercalia. Priests sacrificed goats and a dog at the Lupercal, the cave where legend says Romulus and Remus were suckled, and their blood was smeared on two youths. Young women were whipped across their shoulders in the belief it bestowed fertility. The rite was performed in mid February at an altar near Lapis Niger, a sacred site paved with black stones near the Roman Forum until A.D. 494 when it was banned by the pope.

Romans held sacrifices in which a bull, a sheep and a pig were offered. There was even a word to describe it ( suovetaurilia ) which was made by combining the Roman words for the three animals. Genius was the male form of family power and it was usually represented by the head of a snake.

Both the Greeks and Romans salted their sacrifice victims before their throats were cut. Roman senators vied among themselves to see who could get the most blood on their togas during the sacrifice of steer, thinking it would prevent death. A 1,500-year-old earthenware vase that was once thought show human dismemberment actually depicted an ancient bronze statue assembly line.

Temples in the Roman Forum

The Lower Forum (below Palantine Hill on the Capitoline Hill side of the Forum) is the home of the Temple of Saturn, Temple of Castor and Pollex, the Arch of Augustus and the Temple of Deified Julius. Temple of Saturn (below Palantine Hill on the Capitoline Hill side of the Forum) is a structure with eight standing columns where wild orgies honoring the god Saturn were held.

The Temple of Antonius and Fustina (left of the Basilica of Maxentius) contains a firm foundation and well-preserved ceiling lattice work. Nearby is an ancient necropolis with graves that date back to the 8th century and an ancient drainage sewer that is still in use. The Temple of Romulus contains its original A.D. 4th century bronze doors, which still have a working lock.

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House of the Vestal Virgins in Rome
The Temple of Castor and Pollex (next to the Basilica Julia) honors the Gemini twins, the equivalent of patron saints for armies and commanders. According legend they appeared at the Basin of Juturna at the temple and helped the Romans defeat the Etruscans at a pivotal battle in 496 B.C. The most noticeable part of the temple is a group of three connected columns. Down the road from the Temple of Castor and Pollex is the Arch of Augustus and the Temple of Deified Julius, which Augustus built to honor his father. Behind the Temple of Deified Julius is the Upper Forum.

Upper Forum (Colosseum-side entrance of the Forum) contains the House of Vestal Virgins, the Temple of Antonius and Fustina (near the Basilica of Maxentius. The House of Vestal Virgins (near Palantine Hill, next to the Temple of Castor and Pollex) is a sprawling 55-room complex with statues of virgin priestess. The statue whose name has been scratched is believed to belong to a virgin who converted to Christianity. The Temple of the Vestal Virgins is a restored circular buildings where vestal virgins performed rituals and tended Rome's eternal flame for more than a thousand years. Across the square fromm the temple is the Regia, where Rome's highest priest had his office.

Roman Mystery Cults

There were hundreds of local gods and hundreds of cults, many devoted to specific gods. Many of the cults, were very secretive and had special initiation rituals with sacred tales, symbols, formulas and special rituals oriented towards specific gods. These are often described as mystery cults. Fertility cults and goddesses were often associated with the moon because its phases coincided the menstruation cycles of women and it was thought the moon had power over women.

In a review of Mystery Cults in Ancient World by Hugh Bowden, Mary Beard wrote in the Times of London, “For modern scholars, it has always been a frustrating task to discover the secret of these ancient mystery cults (“mystery” from the Greek mysterion, which has a range of meaning, from “Eleusinian ritual” to “secret knowledge” in a wider sense). What was it that the initiates of Dionysus or the “Great Mother” knew that the uninitiated did not? In his refreshing new survey,Mystery Cults in Ancient World, Hugh Bowden suggests that we have perhaps been worrying unnecessarily about that question. In fact, we don’t have to imagine the ancients were so much better keepers of secrets than we are, for no secret knowledge, as such, was transmitted at all. To be sure, there was a whole range of objects involved in these cults that outsiders could not see, and words that they were not allowed to hear. (In the cult at Eleusis, from descriptions of the public procession to the sanctuary, we can judge that the cult objects were small---at least small enough comfortably to be carried in containers by the priestesses.) But that is quite different from thinking that some particular piece of secret doctrine was revealed to the faithful at their initiation.

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Libation by Apollo of a black bird
Mystery cults dedicated to Bachus were popular. Cults for Isis and Osiris and Mithras were popular with traders and soldiers. Initiates to cults honoring Cybele in Asia Minor were baptized in bull blood, which some thought ensured eternal life. Once accepted into the cult devotees were expected to castrate themselves as offering of their fertility in exchange for the fertility of the world. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Roman initiation ceremonies depicted in a painting at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, showed devotees who read liturgy, made offerings, symbolically suckled a goat, unveiled the mystic phallus, whipped themselves (symbolic of ritual death), danced to resurrection and prepared for holy marriage.

Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard wrote in the Times of London, “Livy includes in his history of Rome a lurid tale of the cult of Bacchus, which stresses debauchery, murder and a clever trick with sulphurous torches, which stayed alight even when plunged into the waters of the Tiber. Early Christian writers found these initiatory cults a predictably easy target. Clement of Alexandria, for example, at the end of the second or beginning of the third century AD, tried to forge an etymological link between the ritual cry of the Bacchic worshippers (“euan, euoi”) and the Judaeo-Christian figure of Eve---helped by a reputed fondness of the Bacchists for snakes. Clement’s idea was that they were actually worshipping the originator of human sin. [Source: Mary Beard, Times of London, June 2010]

How true some of the descriptions of cult activities were is a matter of debate. In a review of Mystery Cults in the Ancient World by Hugh Bowden (Thames and Hudson, 2010), Beard wrote that Bowden “takes many scholars to task (myself included) for assuming that the cult of the Great Mother in Rome, based on the Palatine Hill, just next to the Roman imperial palace, was served by ecstatic eunuch priests who castrated themselves with a piece of flint. Some of us had already been a little more circumspect about this than Bowden allows: you only have to read accounts of pre-modern full castration (for the Great Mother was supposed to demand the removal of both penis and testicles) to recognize that few priests could have survived any such procedure. But he shows that, feasible or not, the practice is anyway much less clearly attested in Roman literature than we like to think.

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House altar in Herculaneum
“More often than not, in fact, the details of these cults may not be quite as they seem,” Beard wrote. Bowden “cites an intriguing second-century AD inscription from just outside Rome, listing the members of a Bacchic troupe (or thiasos), under a priestess called Agripinilla. It is anyone’s guess whether we see here a group of respectable Roman men and women really imitating the mad Bacchants of Euripides’ play, and taking to the mountains in religious fervour---or whether this was the ancient equivalent of modern morris dancing (that is to say the Roman equivalent group of bank managers on their days off pretending to be lusty medieval rustics). My hunch, as Bowden almost suggests, is the latter.

This overlap between civic and initiatory religion comes out particularly vividly in a series of inscriptions commemorating leading pagan aristocrats of the late Roman Empire, which proudly list all their religious offices---initiation into mystery cults next to official state priesthoods. These were men who boasted of holding the traditional offices of augur or pontifex, as well as of being initiated into the cult of Mithras or Egyptian Isis. Bowden rightly focuses on these at the end of his book and argues against a common view that they reflect a new form of aggressive pagan religiosity, developed in response to the rise of Christianity, or that they are part of a pagan “revival” in a Christian context. Much more likely they show---albeit under the magnifying glass of late imperial Rome (where everything appears larger than life)---just how closely different forms and styles of cult, “mystery” or not, had always gone hand in hand. However secretive they might have been about what went on in their ceremonies, however uncertain or elusive the “message” of the cults might have been amid all that sound and light---initiation in a variety of different cults was something that these late antique aristocrats were happy to parade.

Mystery Cults in the Ancient World by Hugh Bowden (Thames and Hudson, 2010)

Roman Views on the Afterlife

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Pompeii fresco of Perseus and Andromeda
Some Romans believed the that Milky Way was the stairway to heaven and that each star represented a departed soul. Ovid wrote how Venus swept down to the Senate and took the soul of Caesar from his assassinated body and the two of them formed a comet as they flew through the sky. Every person on earth, the famous and not so famous, was supposed have his or her own star, and our expression "to thank you lucky star" comes from that belief." ["The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin]

Following a custom established by the Etruscans, the first Romans, according to legend, dug a pit in the middle of the city that was said to have made it easier for the living to communicate with their dead ancestors in the Nether World. The first fruits of the harvest and clods of dirt from the homelands of new settlers was thrown in is an offering. During certain holidays the "door of the dead" (a stone at the bottom of the ditch was removed, allowing the spirits to roam the earth for a little while. [Ibid]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Most of the information about Greco-Roman science, geography, medicine, time, sculpture and drama was taken from "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. Most of the information about Greek everyday life was taken from a book entitled "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum [||].

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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